[News] The Global Significance Of The Amazon Protest

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Jun 12 13:03:55 EDT 2009

The Global Significance Of The Amazon Protest

June 12, 2009 By Sam Urquhart

Peru's Amazon region has been locked down, after 
the death of perhaps 40 indigenous protesters and 
20 police during an attempt to break up a 
blockade last Friday. 
reports have put the death toll as high as 250, 
than 100 unaccounted for in the worst violence 
that the Amazon region has seen since the height 
of the Shining Path insurgency in the 1980s.

But while deaths are mounting, and the Amazon is 
being militarized, resistance is growing across 
Peru to a series of laws designed to open up the 
jungle to energy investment and to break up indigenous land-holdings.

On 6 June, a peaceful blockade was allegedly 
fired upon by helicopters from the nation's army. 
Most of the dead were indigenous protesters, part 
of a contingent at the blockade in Bagua province 
which numbered thousands - all of them seeking to 
resist the expansion of energy exploration and 
logging into Peru's Amazon region. And many of 
them appear to have been not just peaceful, but asleep.

As the NGO Amazon Watch 
"At approximately 5 am...the Peruvian military 
police staged a violent raid" during which 
"several thousand Awajun and Wambis indigenous 
peoples were forcibly dispersed by tear gas and 
real bullets." In a brutal attack, helicopters 
dropped tear gas bombs from on high while police 
moved in on the protesters - shooting some in the 
process. The NGO also reports that "as the 
unarmed demonstrators were killed and injured 
some wrestled the Police and took away their guns 
and fought back in self-defense resulting in 
deaths of several Police officers."

Doctors in Bagua allege that the evacuation of 
casualties was obstructed. As Dr Jose Sequen 
El Mundo, "During great part in the morning...the 
police did not allow the passage of the 
ambulances for the evacuation." El Mundo's 
correspondent Beatrice Jimenez also reported that 
"the bodies of the dead [were] being 
"disappeared" by those paid by the police Special 
Operations Directorate" - allegations that are 
backed up by Peru's National Coordinator of Human 
Rights, who has blogged about reports that his 
organization has received of corpse-burning by the authorities.

This has been reported by Amazon Watch, which 
reported on 8 June that "numerous eyewitnesses 
are reporting that the Special Forces of the 
Peruvian Police have been disposing of the bodies 
of indigenous protesters who were killed" in what 
Amazon Watch spokesperson Gregor McClennan 
"an apparent attempt by the Government to 
underreport the number of indigenous people killed by police."

Over one hundred protesters remain in detention 
while, according to McClennan, "Eye-witness 
reports also confirm that police forcibly removed 
some of the wounded indigenous protesters from 
hospitals, taking them to unknown destinations." 
Fears grow that other blockades, such as one 
ongoing outside the town of Yurimaguas, could be 
due to face similar repression, as an atmosphere 
of fear and intimidation spreads across Amazonian Peru.

As a 
released by the indigenous umbrella group CAOI on 
5 June put it, "The government of Alan Garci'a 
Perez has unleashed a bloody repression in the 
Peruvian Amazonia at dawn today." For CAOI, the 
deaths at Bagua are "[a] dictatorial answer [to] 
56 days of indigenous peaceful struggle and 
supposed dialogue and negotiations, that always 
finishes in bullets [and] a continuation of more 
than 500 years of oppression."

Indigenous leader Walter Kategari expressed 
similar sentiments, 
the Mexican newspaper El Universal that "They 
began to shoot against our people. And the 
government knows that the natives are pacific, 
but when there is an action against us they will 
always find a reaction. And they made us react." 
Kategari echoes the 
of Alberto Pizango, one of the major organizers 
of the indigenous movement in Peru, who has said 
that police shot down indigenous "brothers" like nothing more than animals.

The government, meanwhile, has responded 
verbally attacking the protesters. President Alan 
Garcia said of protest leader Alberto Pizango 
that he was guilty of "falling to a criminal 
level: assaulting a police post, grabbing arms 
from police, killing police who are fulfilling 
their duty." (The government maintains that 24 
policemen died in the clashes, and just 9 
protesters - numbers that are 
by eyewitness accounts.)

According to Peru's La Republica newspaper, 
"Garcia reproached that some native ones have 
been deceived with inexact information on the 
norms that have caused to the controversy between 
the State and the natives" saying that "I hope 
that this finishes there. And also of the side of 
the native ones that has been taken in by such 
deceit to pronounce itself, without having read 
the decrees" adding that "We hope that there are not more victims."

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Mercedes Cabanillas 
has <http://www.livinginperu.com/news/9268>said 
that the protests are merely politically 
motivated - the product of Garcia's opponents - 
and hence ripe for repression. Garcia himself has 
said the same. As La Republica puts it, the 
president has "inferred that behind the protests 
international interests of competition exist to 
prevent the development of the extractive industry in the forest."

On a different tack, Peru's Labor Minister has 
the leaders of the indigenous movement, 
counseling Peruvians to remember the fallen 
police as well as the indigenous victims, and 
arguing that "Pizango with his intolerance to 
taken to this situation to the country."

Yet for his part, Pizango 
the press that he "[held] the government of 
President Alan Garcia responsible for ordering 
this genocide" - and for his trouble has been 
smeared on national radio, with station CNR 
saying that he "might ask for asylum from 
Bolivia, Venezuela or Ecuador in the next few 
hours." In the event, Pizango sought sanctuary in 
the embassy of Nicaragua, following threats against his life.

The war of words, gas bombs, helicopters and 
bullets puts us on the brink of a precipice. 
Facing a grave threat to his investment centered 
economic program in the form of an indigenous 
movement of unprecedented vitality and 
organization, Garcia is responding with violence. 
But how have we come to this pass?

Opening up the Amazon

The pace of indigenous mobilization and 
resistance in Peru has quickened over the past 
three years since Alan Garcia took power for the 
second time as president of Peru. Garcia embarked 
upon a twin-track economic strategy which has 
alienated large sections of Peruvian society, but 
none more so than the country's 14 million indigenous people.

On the one hand, Garcia has pushed through a Free 
Trade Agreement with the United States, passing 
numerous "decrees" in order to remodel the 
economy to suit the terms of the deal. On the 
other, he has aggressively pursued the opening up 
of the Amazon to energy exploration and 
development, a strategy which poses an immediate 
threat to indigenous ways of life and native ecologies.

As one study published in 2008 reported, Garcia 
has allotted over 70 percent of the Peruvian 
Amazon to oil firms such as Argentina's 
Pluspetrol, France's and France's Perenco. Such 
deals have also been secured without consultation 
with indigenous communities that they will 
affect. In fact, Alan Garcia has overridden 
concerns about indigenous rights, saying that "We 
have to understand when there are resources like 
oil, gas and timber, they don't belong only to 
the people who had the fortune to be born there."

The decrees which Garcia passed in order to ready 
Peru for integration with the U.S. economy stand 
to make the expropriation of indigenous lands much easier.

Decree 1064, for instance, sought to outflank 
local communities, allowing companies with 
concessions to arrange changes to zoning permits 
in the Amazon with Peru's central government, 
potentially bypassing any form of local 
consultation. Amazon Watch 
that this puts Peru in contravention of ILO 
regulation 169, which requires governments "to 
consult with indigenous people prior to signing 
contracts and establishing any development 
projects that will affect them" - something which 
"has never happened, but there has always been a 
requirement for companies to at least negotiate a 
financial settlement with a community prior to moving in."

Article 7 of Decree 1064 also 
<http://www.en-camino.org/node/96>sought to 
"[reclassify] communal land rights as subordinate 
to individual and private ownership" while 
"sub-clauses of article 7 give favor in any 
conflict to individuals and companies, and to 
settlers who have invaded indigenous territory." 
This was supposed to work in conjunction with 
decree 1089, which expanded the role of Peru's 
urban land titling service, COFPRI, whose policy 
"has been to promote individual land titles, 
offering credit to individuals who rescind their 
communal land for individual titles." Decrees 
1015 and 1073, in addition, would make it easier 
to break up indigenous landholdings by requiring 
a simple majority amongst communities, rather 
than two thirds as was previously the case.

Perhaps most controversially of all, Decree 1090 
sought to drastically reduce the amount of the 
Amazon covered by Peru's Forestry Heritage 
protection system, "freeing" some 45 million 
hectares for the purposes of economic development 
(comprising some 60 percent of Peru's jungles).

This single mindedness has brought resistance. 
Indigenous peoples have long struggled against 
energy firms. The Achuar, for example, have taken 
the American giant Occidental Petroleum to court 
in Los Angeles over the pollution of their land. 
Yet this resistance has never been unified.

As Latin American expert John Crabtree of Oxford 
University told me "Peru, unlike Bolivia and 
Ecuador, lacks a powerful indigenous movement 
that brings together pro-indigenous groups in the 
highlands and in the Amazon jungle." Groups in 
the Amazon have often been divided and have 
"always tended to focus on their own reality 
rather than enter into alliances with others" but 
this may be changing due to Garcia's "Law of the Jungle" (decree 1090).

The past two years have seen a deepening of 
cooperation between disparate peoples in Peru's 
Amazon. In August 2008, with indigenous grouping 
AIDESEP in the lead, protesters blockaded some of 
Peru's most important waterways and transport 
arteries. A bridge in Bagua was occupied, 
severing Amazonian Peru from the coast, sparking 
clashes in which over 800 protesters battled with 
police with tens of injuries. In the south of the 
country, protesters surrounded and blockaded the 
Camisea natural gas facility, as well as other 
drilling platforms and a hydroelectric dam 
project taking the fight against Garcia's reforms nationwide.

Spokespeople demanded the recision of over 30 of 
the decrees, and for substantive consultation on 
specific projects. As AIDESEP spokesman Alberto 
it, the protesters were "[mobilizing] themselves 
for the right to life, the right to keep their 
territory and to defend the environment - the 
Amazon rainforest which is the lungs of the world."

At one point, the government sought to bring 
AIDESEP leaders into a "dialogue" on development 
issues, but protests continued when the 
government made their cessation a precondition 
for talks. Voices in the media began to make 
absurd comparisons between the indigenous 
protesters and the Sendero Luminoso (Shining 
Path) - a brutal Maoist group active in the 1980s and early 90s.

The situation escalated, with indigenous 
activists unwilling to step down. The government 
had failed to either co-opt their 
representatives, or to launch an effective 
response against protests which had been almost 
completely non-violent and carried support across 
Peru. So when Garcia declared a state of 
emergency on 19 August, instead of being able to 
mop up the protests through police actions, the activists became emboldened.

One AIDESEP leader, Alberto Pizango, called the 
declaration "a declaration of open war." But 
indigenous Peruvians would not surrender. Far 
from it, in fact. As journalist Sandra Cuffe 
"The occupations, blockades and protests 
continued; in fact, others joined in solidarity. 
A provincial Committee of Struggle in La 
Convención (Cusco) including a Farmworkers' 
Federation announced indefinite actions in 
support of the communities in the Amazon, 
including blockades of roads and inter-provincial transportation."

On 20 August, AIDESEP met with the president of 
Peru's Congress, Javier Velásquez Quesquén, who 
agreed to convene an extraordinary plenary 
session which would discuss the contentious 
decrees. By the 22 August, Congress had passed 
legislative decree 2440, which revoked Garcia's 
decrees 1073 and 1015. Pressure from indigenous 
movements had shot down two of the most 
controversial decrees - those which dealt with 
changes to landholding - but many still remained.

Nevertheless, as Alberto Pizango put it, "The 
people of Peru, indigenous or not, have 
demonstrated once more that it is possible to 
reclaim our rights to life, to dignity, and to a 
lasting sustainable development. This is a new 
dawn for the Indigenous Peoples of the country."

Trading away the jungle

New dawn or not, many of the decrees remained in 
force and continued to pose a grave threat to 
indigenous communities. Moreover, in January 
2009, the Free Trade Agreement between Washington 
and Lima came into force after receiving the 
signature of George W. Bush, and it was clear 
that the FTA would further increase pressure on the Amazon region.

In the opinion of Council on Hemispheric Affairs 
analyst Will Petrik, 
consequences will be far reaching. "As small and 
middle-scale Peruvian farmers are forced to 
compete with U.S. subsidized agricultural 
imports," he wrote in January, "it is estimated 
that countless farmers will be forced off their 
land, exacerbating problems, such as urban 
poverty, the drug trade, and forced migration."

The integration of Peru's economy into the wider 
free trade area will have profound implications 
for the Amazon. In fact, as Farid Matuk, former 
Director of the Peruvian National Institute of 
Statistics and Informatics, told me, while "The 
whole idea of the FTA is to expand the 
agricultural frontier of the US economy" it will 
have the effect of driving food production from 
the coast into Peru's Amazon region. While 
"Coastal areas will switch to growing food for 
export but food production" he told me, "less 
land available for food for domestic consumption 
may lead to demand for land in the jungles [and] 
you will need to cut more forests down to produce 
more food for domestic consumption."

As Petrik added, "As the new FTA ensures investor 
protections for multi-national corporations, more 
of these corporations and their industrial model, 
which marginalizes labor rights and the 
environment as mere externalities, are likely to 
negate any obstacles to expanding trade at any cost."

So the FTA carries with it an implicit pincer 
movement focused on Amazonian lands. On the one 
hand, there is an increasing pressure on Peruvian 
land to grow food for domestic consumpion. On the 
other there is the opening up of the region to 
corporate investment and the hollowing out of regulatory safeguards.

The road to Bagua

On 8 April 2009, AIDESEP emerged once again with 
a call-out to indigenous communities across Peru, 
mobilizing 1,350 of them to launch another 
campaign against Garcia's decrees and the FTA. 
Blockading the Napo and Corrientes rivers, 
AIDESEP demanded the repeal of remaining decrees, 
taking 30,000 or more people out onto the streets 
and onto the barricades, while leaving over 40 
vessels owned by energy firms becalmed and unable to get to market.

By 28 April, as Intercontinental Cry 
"protests and other blockades [had] also taken 
place along the Cenepa and Santiago Rivers, on a 
set of train tracks leading to Machu Picchu, and 
in several other commercially-important areas in 
the departments of Amazonas, Loreto, Ucayali, Madre de Dios, Cuzco and Junin."

Tensions remained relatively low, despite 
continuous blockades and protests, yet by 8 May, 
the government had declared a state of emergency 
- with protesters beginning to challenge massive 
investments. Deals like French firm Perenco's $2 
billion investment in oil exploration were being 
challenged by thousands of protesters demanding 
"development from our perspective," as Alberto Pizango put it.

After talks with the government broke down one 
week later, Pizango emerged, telling reporters 
that indigenous protesters "refuse to recognize 
the authority" of the government. Instead, they 
will obey their ancestral laws and view any 
government security forces on their lands as an 
"external aggression" while "The government 
"wants to take our lands and hand them over to 
giant multinationals for the oil, lumber, gold 
and other riches there that are coveted by the world's rich."

Yet Pizango also uttered the "I" word in 
responding to government intransigence, calling 
the indigenous campaign an "insurgency" - a label 
that the government seized upon. President Garcia 
made a rare television address, calling the 
indigenous communities selfish for locking away 
resources beneath their lands which should by 
rights be enjoyed by all Peruvians. "We have to 
understand" he said, that "when there are 
resources like oil, gas and timber, they don't 
belong only to the people who had the fortune to 
be born there because that would mean more than 
half of Peru's territory belongs to a few thousand people."

Garcia coupled this appeal to nationalism with an 
escalation of force, sending Peru's military into 
the Amazon region for 30 days to quell protests 
at strategic locations while Pizango and AIDESEP 
continued to call for dialogue. As Irene Claux of 
Upside Down World reported, "Pizango stresse[d] 
that "the government should lift the state of 
emergency that has been established since May 9 
in five Amazonian regions, the Congress must 
repeal the controversial decrees, and there 
should be a sit-down discussion concerning a 
different path to development in the Amazon."

"Garcia's party declined to back a motion that 
would open debate on the presidential decrees, a 
move that his main political opponent, the 
center-left nationalist Ollanta Humala has called 
a "gross error." Garcia had, in other words, 
chosen confrontation as his strategy.

Despite his unwillingness to engage in honest 
talks with AIDESEP or to debate the matter in 
Congress, Garcia has since then became more 
desperate to end the indigenous blockades, which 
are taking a direct toll on energy production and 
transportation. Although protesters have failed 
to hold the pipeline leading from the Camisea 
natural gas project in Peru's south after almost 
two weeks of occupation, other pipelines still 
remain blocked. Yet even before that occupation, 
as the Financial Times reports, "The 
demonstrations...[had]prompted warnings of fuel 
rationing within a fortnight" while in Block 1A, 
run by Argentine firm Pluspetrol, operations have been suspended.

Garcia has also been 
in opinion polls in recent weeks, providing a 
further spur to action. One poll carried out by 
Ipsos, Apoyo and  Opinión y Mercado put his 
approval rating at just 30 percent  - hardly a 
mandate to force through decrees that would remould a nation.

It was against this backdrop - dismal poll 
numbers and threatened investments - that Garcia 
launched the assault on sleeping protesters in Bagua.

Defenders of the earth

In choosing to militarize the conflict with 
indigenous protesters, Garcia is not just 
attacking the physical bodies of indigenous 
Peruvians. His government has set out to 
challenge, and potentially dismantle, a 
constellation of diverse - yet related - 
cultures, all of which see "development" and the 
"environment" in ways strikingly alien to 
corporate strategists and neoliberal politicians.

As Ricardo Carrere, international coordinator of 
the World Rainforest Movement puts it, "if you 
want to do something about climate change, then 
you must stop oil extraction and the reality 
shows that the only people in the world who are 
actually doing something to protect the world 
versus climate change are the indigenous peoples saying "no more oil."

In Carrere's opinion, indigenous peoples are 
standing up against forces that are antithetical 
to environmental sustainability and social 
justice. They are opposing an "economic logic 
which means we need to destroy" and offering a 
different model of development, one which "needs 
to be decentralised, bringing people from the 
cities back to the land where they can have a 
better way of life" and demands "a very profound 
change is needed in every single country."

If, as Carrere points out, "we are becoming 
poorer with every barrel of oil we export" then 
we are becoming richer with every indigenous 
person who stands up for their lands and their 
rights against energy firms. They are not simply 
local instances of resistance, but are actions with global importance.

They are also the continuation of centuries of 
anti-colonial resistance. As Survival 
International's Stephen Corry 
"protests signal that the colonial era has 
finally drawn to a close. No longer are Amazon 
Indians prepared to put up with the illegal and 
brutal treatment which has been routine. That's finished."

The protests in Peru therefore have a global 
significance - both in terms of resistance 
against neo-colonial investment laws and in terms 
of environmental sustainability. The massacre at 
Bagua speaks to all of us. As Yanomami Indian 
spokesman Davi Kopenawa Yanomami eloquently 

"We must listen to the cry of the earth which is 
asking for help. The earth has no price. It can't 
be bought, or sold or exchanged. It is very 
important that white people, black people and 
indigenous peoples fight together to save the 
life of the forest and the earth. If we don't 
fight together what will our future be? Your 
children need land and nature alive and standing. 
We Indians want respect for our rights. You can 
learn with us and with our shamans. That is 
important not only for the Yanomami but for the future of the whole world."

And standing up is the only effective remedy. 
Amidst the bloodshed in Bagua, 
Congress moved this week to suspend two of 
Garcia's decrees - those that stand to open up 
Peru's Amazon region to energy and mining firms. 
The suspension is temporary, (arcia has fifteen 
days to sign them before they are sent back to 
Congress, which may or may not decide to face him 
down) but resistance is growing.

Today, 20,000 or more students, trade unionists 
and human rights campaigners 
indigenous protesters on the streets of Lima 
chanting "the jungle's not for sale" and 
demanding an inquiry into the events in Bagua. An 
unprecedented movement is linking the peoples of 
Peru's jungle with the jungles of its cities, yet 
it remains to be seen whether Alan Garcia will back down.

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